On Christmas Day in 1643, a ragged priest stepped off a boat traveling from the New World back to France. For more than a year he had been a prisoner of the Iroquois Tribe in what is now Ontario and New York. No one had heard from him for years and the fame of his missionary work had spread throughout Europe. He was presumed dead by his family and friends, making his dramatic return a cause of great celebration and joy. But this priest had a desire to be about the mission God had given him more than to bask in his celebrity or receive adulation. He soon returned to the New World determined to bring the love and truth, and salvation of the Gospel to the Native American peoples. He made many friends and many converts among the Huron people he served but he was martyred for his Catholic faith in 1649.
This story of St. Isaac Jogues is just one of the North American Martyrs (sometimes called the Canadian Martyrs since much of their work was done in what is now Canada) we will celebrate on October 19. Their stories are dramatic, exciting and beautiful. And their stories are a needed encouragement to apostolic zeal in our day.
These martyrs were eight men who gave their lives for Christ between 1642 and 1649. Six of the missionaries were Jesuit priests – Fathers John de Brebeuf, Antoine Daniel, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemant and the already mentioned Isaac Jogues; one was a Jesuit brother – Br. Rene Goupil; and one was a layman dedicated to serving in the missions – Jean de Lalande. All of them had come from France with a zeal to bring the never-before-heard news of the Gospel to the Native American peoples. They worked almost exclusively in Huronia (Central Ontario) with the Wyandot-Huron people, who were often raided by the more aggressive Iroquois Confederacy.
Each of these martyrs deserves to have their stories read. They were men who had one singular purpose. But each of them had diverse gifts to accomplish this goal. St. John de Brebeuf was the most naturally suited to missionary work. He was 32 years old when he arrived in Huronia and he was martyred 24 years later. During these years, this incredible saint learned the language, culture and customs of the Huron people, such as how the Hurons would rebury their dead when they moved to a location. He would teach new missionaries the language so that they could more easily and more quickly proclaim the Gospel. He preached of God’s kingdom – especially of the great gift of baptism and the promises Christ makes to those who receive the sacrament – and worked alongside the Native Americans, helping to acculturate the Gospel to the Hurons, even composing a Christmas carol in their language.
Other missionaries were far less successful. St. Noel Chabanel is famous for his missionary struggles. He did not like the work, the life or the hardships he had to endure. Often Noel was sick from the food, he struggled to learn the language and thought himself a failure by all human standards. Though he found the assignment extremely difficult, he remained steadfast, refusing to abandon his work unless his superiors commanded him to a new assignment under obedience. Noel was martyred at the age of 36. He, along with the other seven, was all canonized saints in 1930. Shrines to these martyrs stand at two of the places of their martyrdoms, in Midland, Ontario (on the Georgian Bay) and Auriesville, New York (north of Albany).
These spiritual giants are tremendous guides for our missionary work. They can teach us how to approach the missionary work in our lives. We do not need to travel to far off lands or expose ourselves to mortal danger to learn invaluable lessons from them. First, we learn from these martyrs how important missionary zeal is. In UTG this is called “apostolic zeal,” but it is the same thing. If we are to do great things for God, we need to have our hearts set on fire for him. In the midst of all of their demanding, tedious and dangerous work, the North American Martyrs called to mind why they were “on the mission.” The eternal salvation of others was at stake. They reminded themselves of this reality often. All that they endured – from mosquito bites too great to count to gruesome tortures – was for the salvation of souls. When we encounter a lack of success, taunts and insults or just the tepidity of our own hearts, praying to these martyrs can stir the cooling embers of our hearts back into flame.
The North American Martyrs were innovative. They were meeting people very different from themselves and people who were often (rightfully) skeptical of their new neighbors. It took hard work to find ways to make a connection with the Huron people. Learning the language was an indispensable key. Many of the people who need to hear the Gospel today do not speak the same language we do. They are steeped in secular (or sometimes progressive) understandings of the human person, relationships, the meaning of the world or even objective truth. We need to learn to speak this new language to make a connection upon which we can build a relationship of faith. For some of us, this means learning the language of social media, to bring the light of the Gospel into this mission territory. For all of us, it means a willingness to learn something new, try something new and meeting someone new.
Finally, the North American Martyrs knew that the Gospel had power that needed to be unleashed. Like those first disciples whom Christ sent out, they went to an unknown people with little provisions, except the power of the Gospel. They were not rich, powerful or influential, but they were faithful. We can look around during these days and see all of the problems which make it hard for us to unleash the Gospel – lack of money, a pandemic or the diminishing influence of the Church and religion in society. Yet we will be judged on how faithful we are rather than how successful we are. Therefore, the North American Martyrs teach us not to be bystanders in the mission of the Church, but to boldly and confidently unleash the Gospel.
As we move closer to celebrating these heroes of Catholicism on October 19, take some time to learn their stories and pray to them. The Shrine in Canada has put out a series of videos for the novena to these eight martyrs which gives one of their stories daily, beginning on October 11 and ending on the feast day (note: the Catholic Church in Canada celebrates their feast day a few weeks earlier so the dates of the novena are different). I pray this same novena (written prayers are here) every year and invite you to pray it with me this year. We also have two churches in the Archdiocese of Detroit under their patronage: St. Isaac Jogues in St. Clair Shores and St. Rene Goupil in Sterling Heights. Visit one or both of these churches this month as a way of seeking their intercession for you and your family. God has given these saints to be especially ours. Thank you, Jesus! Thank you North American Martyrs!